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Number the Stars | Study Guide

Lois Lowry

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Number the Stars | Context


Anti-Semitism and Hitler

Anti-Semitism, coined in 1879 by German journalist Wilhelm Marr, describes prejudice against Jews. The plot of Number the Stars is driven by the anti-Semitism of the German Nazis. The Nazi plan to commit genocide is a result of their anti-Semitism, and it is this hatred that causes Ellen Rosen and her parents—and many other Danish Jews—to flee. While the results of anti-Semitism play out during World War II, the origins of anti-Semitism are far older. Early Christians blamed the death of Christian religious leader Jesus not on the Romans who crucified him, but on the Jews.

During the Middle Ages (5th to 15th century), laws were passed that forbade Jews from owning land or joining trade guilds. Since they were excluded from so many jobs, many Jews became moneylenders and tax collectors. By 1215 Jews in Europe had to wear badges or hats that identified them as Jews. In some places Jews were expelled—in 1290, for instance, England expelled or exiled Jews.

However, the idea of prejudice is even more complex. People characterized Jews as having certain traits. These stereotypes were part of the scapegoating, or blaming of Jews for social problems. Jews took the blame for the deadly pandemic of the Black Plague (1346–53). Church leaders also accused Jews of "blood libel," or the killing of non-Jewish children. In all of these cases, many nations or communities in Europe accused, expelled, or executed Jews.

During the Enlightenment of the 18th century the situation improved. The treatment of Jews was fairer than it had been in the Middle Ages. In some places, such as France, Jews obtained more rights. Despite these small changes, the rise of nationalism in Europe (wherein people place their own nation and cultural interests above others) caused further problems. Often Jews were seen as outsiders and foreigners. By the end of the 19th century, the hostility toward Jews once again erupted. There were many violent anti-Jewish riots, called pogroms, in Poland and the Soviet Union.

After the Germans lost World War I (1914–18), an attempted socialist revolutionary overthrow of the German government was unsuccessful. Some of the leaders of this political party were Jewish. German dictator Adolf Hitler, anti-Semitic since his youth, rose in importance by blaming communists and Jews for Germany's loss in the war. By 1920 he had joined a small political party—the German Worker's Party (later called the Nazi Party). During his time in prison after leading an unsuccessful Nazi rebellion, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle, 1925). In the book he blames Jews for many of Germany's economic and social problems and suggests Germany could only be strong if the Aryans (white non-Jews) ruled. He believed Jews were a subhuman race intent on taking over the world as enemies of Germany.

Hitler's message spread quickly when he became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933 and then dictator that spring. Jews were harassed, discriminated against, and chased out of Germany throughout the rest of the 1930s, fleeing to nearby countries for safety.

Hitler and World War II

The safe zone for Jews shrank as the German army began taking over central and eastern Europe, starting with Austria in 1938 and then followed by present-day Czechoslovakia. Hitler eyed Poland next. He didn't want its neighbor, Russia, to stand in his way, so he made a deal to divide Poland in two. Germany would get the western third and Russia would get the rest. But Poland, which had only recently become an independent nation, was promised protection from Great Britain and France should Germany invade. After German forces entered Poland on September 1, 1939, Great Britain and France declared war two days later. World War II began as the Nazi armies conquered the outnumbered Poles.

During the war, Germany led a group known as the Axis powers, including Italy and Japan. The opposing Allied powers included Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and China. Between 1942 and 1945, when the war ended, the Allied forces countered the Axis powers. Although the Allies had set-backs, they eventually halted the Nazi invasions and land annexations in Europe.

While the war raged, however, the German government engaged in the systematic genocide of the Jewish people. Jews, along with some other groups such as homosexuals and gypsies, were transported to camps, many of them in Poland, to be worked to death, starved, or gassed. Number the Stars is set during the period in history when Denmark and many other nations were under German occupation. The novel is the story of an occupied people who choose to resist the Nazis by rescuing their friends and neighbors.

German Occupation of Denmark

The five-year German occupation of Denmark began after only a few hours of fighting. On April 9, 1940, the German and Danish governments came to agreement on the terms of the German occupation of Denmark. For the first three years, the Danish government continued mostly as it had before occupation, and the Germans had not yet begun to round up and deport Jews as they had been doing in many other European countries.

After the Danish election in 1943, which was allowed by the Germans, this relatively peaceful period ended. The growing Danish Resistance movement created difficulty for the Germans: Number the Stars tells of an illegal Resistance newspaper, De Frie DanskeThe Free Danes, that reports "new of sabotage against the Nazis, bombs hidden and exploded in the factories that produced war materials, and industrial railroad lines damaged so that the goods couldn't be transported." Thus, the Germans went to the Danish government with demands to act, including a request that saboteurs to be put to the death. In defiance, the Danish government resigned, and the Germans took over the governance of Denmark in August 1943. The plan to relocate Danish Jews to labor and concentration camps was to start at the end of September 1943, but in early October, the Swedish government offered them sanctuary.

By the summer of 1944, Germans began to take on the Resistance, killing many members. In Number the Stars Peter Neilsen becomes one of these losses. The Nazis dissolved the Danish police and sent 2,000 police officers to the camps. The privations and sufferings of the Danish people grew more intense, and crime became widespread. This situation did not improve until the German occupation of Denmark ended on May 5, 1945, with the end of World War II.

Rescue of Danish Jews

The central premise of Number the Stars is the rescue of Danish Jews. The coast of Sweden is visible from Denmark as Annemarie notes when she is with Ellen Rosen at Annemarie's uncle's house: "See the land? Way across there? That's Sweden." In October 1943 Sweden ended its policy of neutrality in World War II and opened its borders to refugees. Further, the tendency to use Jews as scapegoats for economic and social problems was not common in Denmark. Consequently, many Danes viewed the rescue of the Danish Jews as a source of light and hope during this horrific period in Jewish and human history.

On September 28, 1943, a German diplomat let the Resistance know about the plan to deport the Danish Jews to camps. The Danish people helped hide their Jewish neighbors and coworkers, and over a two-week period 7,220 Jews were smuggled into Sweden. This nationwide effort meant that only 500 Danish Jews were taken to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Further, the officials in Denmark pressured the Germans about those who had been deported. Ultimately, only 51 of the 500 transported Jews died.

There were other cases of citizens acting bravely. The French saved 12,000 children. Members of the French clergy hid them or smuggled them into Switzerland and Spain. In Poland another 20,000 people survived because of actions by ordinary people. However, Denmark was unique in their organized, national effort.

The Holocaust (Shoah)

During World War II, Nazis pursued genocide of the Jews. Ellen Rosen, her parents, and the other Danish Jews in the novel flee their imprisonment, and ultimately, their deaths as part of what the Germans called Endlösung or "final solution." German Dictator Adolf Hitler referenced the German Endlösung or "final solution" as early as 1922 when speaking with a journalist: "Once I really am in power, my first and foremost task will be the annihilation of the Jews." In January 1939 the chief of the German Nazi security police, Reinhard Heydrich, received an order to solve the "Jewish question" by either "emigration or evacuation." Prior to the 1941 German attack on the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), Jews could leave Germany. However, after the attack, the intention of the Nazis changed. In July 1941 Heydrich was told to submit a plan "for the execution of the intended 'final solution' of the Jewish question."

In 1942 at the Nazi Wannsee Conference near Berlin, Heydrich announced the plan for the mass deportation of European Jews. The 15 participants at the meeting discussed how best to organize the mass murder of millions of European Jews. As part of this "solution," Hitler approved the use of trains to transport Jews to Poland and the Soviet Union. A Polish official, Dr. Josef Butler, requested that the "final solution" begin in his region. The meeting also noted that Slovakia, Croatia, and Romania were collaborating with the Nazi agenda of genocide. The leaders did not expect that France would be a problem because they were not actively resisting the genocide as the Danes were. The notes from the conference also added the Nazis had plans to work with the Italian police. However, there was great opposition to the "final solution" in Nordic countries, so it would be delayed there.

The Nazis murdered more than six million Jews, as well as countless other marginalized citizens of Eastern Europe. Of this six million, one and a half million were children. About 40% of the 1,800 Jews in Norway died. In the Netherlands 75% of the Jews starved or were murdered. Fifty percent of the Hungarian Jews—more than 400,000 people—died by starvation, disease, or gassing in the Polish Auschwitz, the most infamous of the Nazi death camps. In contrast, only 500 Jews were arrested in Denmark and transported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. The concerted efforts of the Danish government in exile and the Danish population helped prevent a shoah, or catastrophe, in Denmark. Families in the novel like the Rosens, and the other unnamed people at Henrik's house, are spared because they are smuggled to Sweden.

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